COLORADO – By Nov. 3, 2020, Colorado voters will have voted “yes” or “no” to Proposition 114, the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative. A "yes" vote supports requiring the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. A "no" vote opposes creating a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023.
If passed, it is unclear if local county commissioners west of the Continental Divide will be able to reject the reintroduction of wolves in their counties but this appears to be an option on their tables.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) stated on their website, “Colorado Parks and Wildlife is not currently responsible for managing wolves in Colorado, wolves are still protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Colorado. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the management of all species listed under the ESA. If wolf populations are established in Colorado, via natural dispersal into the state or intentionally reintroduced, they would remain managed by the Federal government until/unless wolves are delisted in the state. The federal government has proposed delisting gray wolves in Colorado and elsewhere, but a decision has not yet been made.”
Wolves are currently removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and portions of the states of Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Why is this Initiative on the ballot? Wolves are “cash cows” in terms of fundraising to the organizations that are promoting Proposition 114. Otherwise these organizations would also be promoting the protection of habitat and reintroduction of less glamorous species like the Black-footed Ferret, Razorback Sucker, Bonytail fish, Whopping Crane, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Least Tern among other species; all of which have the same Federal and State Endangered classification as the gray wolf.
This initiative is moot, as wolves are already in Colorado and have been emigrating to the state for years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) stated, “There are indications of wolves in the state. We typically field around 100 sightings each year. When confirmed sightings occur, the number of additional reports spike. However, wolf reports are typically not considered reliable without strong supporting evidence. In the summer of 2019 a wolf from the Snake River Pack (a pack in Wyoming) was located in Jackson County, Colorado. Over the past decade we have confirmed or have had probable wolf dispersals that occurred in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2015.”
A radio collared female wolf from the Swan Lake pack in Yellowstone National Park traveled 500 miles to Colorado and was killed by a car July 6, 2004, on I-70 west of Denver. In January 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed the existence of a wolf pack in northwest Colorado in Moffat County consisting of 6 wolves.
In 1995, 15 wolves from four packs captured in Canada were relocated to Yellowstone National Park and 17 wolves were released in central Idaho. In 1996 Yellowstone National Park received 17 more wolves from Canada and 10 wolf pups. An additional, 20 wolves were also released in central Idaho and the first wolf pups were born that year in the wild in Idaho.
Central Idaho was chosen because it had the largest contiguous wilderness areas in the lower 48 states with little human population density. The initial counties in Idaho where wolves were released had population densities of less than 2 persons per square mile; the state population at the time of introduction was 1.1 million. Colorado is too populous of a state to have a forced introduction of wolves. Colorado’s population is currently just under 6 million and Colorado counties west of the Continental Divide have as high as 44 people per square mile densities. When wildlife becomes habituated human conflicts arise.
Before wolf reintroduction in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) defined wolf recovery to occur when there were 30 breeding pairs – an adult male and female raising two or more pups in the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for three consecutive years. Wolves reached this federal biological recovery goal in December 2002.
By 2015 the University of Idaho reported that Idaho had 69 breeding pairs in the state. In 2017 Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks found 63 breeding pairs in the state and in 2019 Wyoming had at least 22 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park.
The gray wolf has far exceeded the initial EIS recovery goals in population and number of breeding pairs. During the summer of 2019, an Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) wolf survey concluded that there were approximately 1,500 wolves in Idaho. During the summer of 2006 there were 673 wolves in Idaho and IDFG officials described the wolf population as a “brick and mortar” scenario with conflict with humans being inevitable as the larger packs, the “bricks,” forced the smaller packs into the edges, or “mortar;” inevitably onto private property and into other states. Wolves are highly territorial and will defend their territory to the death if necessary.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the range-wide gray wolf population stands at more than 6,000, exceeding the combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations. Wolves have begun to expand into northern California, Western Oregon and Colorado. Wolf populations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota are also strong and abundant.
Wolves introduced in Idaho and Wyoming have moved into neighboring states in order to find new territory. They will continue to do so as populations in these states continue to rise and territories are diminished.
This has already occurred in the states of Califorina, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and others. In 2019, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife department reported that there were 158 wolves in 22 packs in the state. In 2019 Washington State Department of Wildlife reported that there were 145 wolves in 26 packs living in eastern Washington along the Idaho border. In 2020, Wyoming officials reported 311 wolves in 43 packs outside of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) borders. In the vast wilderness of YNP there are only 94 wolves in eight packs. Utah officials estimate that the state has 15-20 wolves in the northwest corner of the state. In the remote regions of northeastern California wolves have emigrated to the state and there are confirmed breeding pairs.
The idea that wolves would be the answer to Chronic Wasting Disease in Colorado and that wolves only prey on weak and sick animals is erroneous. Wolves are opportunistic predators and will kill mature and healthy animals as well as sick or weakened animals. According to the National Park Service (NPS), wolves consume a wide variety of large and small prey. Wolves efficiently hunt large prey such as moose, elk and deer. In Yellowstone, 90% of wolves winter prey consists of elk while 10–15% of their summer prey is deer. They also kill keystone animals like beavers and predators including mountain lions, bears, foxes, coyotes and other wolves that encroach on their territory. It is estimated that one wolf will kill and consume 18-23 big game animals per year. In Idaho there are currently approximately 1,000 wolves, which according to the NPS report, would consume 1.5 elk/deer each month. This means that wolves in Idaho alone kill an estimated 18,000 elk/deer/moose per year.
For Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), wolf forced introduction is a “can of worms.” CPW must manage all wildlife in such a manner as will preserve, protect and perpetuate wildlife. CPW is already trying to understand why the elk numbers in southwest Colorado are on the decline. Adding an apex predator to the equation of wildlife management and calculating the number of hunting tags to issue, etc. will be burdensome. Not to mention an added million dollar plus annual expense and loss of millions of dollars in hunting license fees.
In 2004 CPW stated, “A broad-based agreement on how CPW would manage the species via natural migration resulted from a wolf management working group CPW convened in 2004. An introduction or reintroduction of any ESA-listed species into the state must be approved by the Colorado Legislature. In 2016, the Parks and Wildlife Commission considered the issue of wolf reintroduction and affirmed the recommendations from the working group, which supports the presence of wolves in Colorado, with conditions, and via natural migration into the state not through intentional reintroduction.”